Atlanta Braves: 3 Up and 3 Down

The goal for the 2010 Atlanta Braves was to send long-time manager Bobby Cox out on a high note. The Braves accomplished that goal by winning the NL Wildcard and finishing 2nd in the NL East behind the Phillies. The Wildcard berth into the playoffs ended the Braves four year playoff drought that began after the team reeled off 14-consecutive division titles. The playoff run didn’t last long as Atlanta ultimately lost in four games to the eventual World Series Champion San Francisco Giants.

For the Braves, the pitching was a bright spot as it was expected to be. The Braves had a solid rotation that consisted of some faces Atlanta fans didn’t expect to see this season, but they had to step in due to some injuries. The Braves finished 3rd in the league with a 3.56 team ERA. Offensively, the Braves were better than expected and they finished in the top half of the National League in batting average at .258, OPS at .740, and runs with 738.

What does Jason Heyward's sophomore season have in store?

The long ball continued to plague the Braves in 2010 just as it had in previous seasons without the presence of a true cleanup hitter in the lineup. They finished 11th in the NL with 139 homeruns. That shouldn’t be much of a problem going forward. Defensively, Atlanta was a huge disappointment and their 126 errors were the 3rd most in all of baseball. We all remember it biting the Braves big time in the playoffs when a player that shall not be named made three critical errors in game three.

With Bobby Cox gone, new manager Fredi Gonzalez will lead the Braves into 2011…

3 Up

Best Case Scenario: The Braves quietly had a strong offseason by shoring up their bullpen and pulling off the blockbuster deal to bring in Dan Uggla and give the Braves the right-handed power bat that they have sorely missed since Andruw Jones found moon pies. Jason Heyward could take the next step forward toward super stardem and become and MVP candidate.  An improved offense, a strong bullpen, and one of the top rotations in the league should lead to better things from the Braves in 2011 and they could very well make a run at the Phillies and their four aces for the NL East crown.

Most Valuable Players: With Chipper Jones hanging on to his career by a thread, Brian McCann has really stepped up into a leadership role and has been one of the best catchers in baseball for the past five years. The five-time All Star hit a career low .269 in 2010, but he came on later in the season after a slow start. I’d expect McCann to bounce back and hit around .280-.290 in the 2011. Tim Hudson had ace-like stuff last season for Atlanta in his first full-season since 2007. He led the Braves starting rotation with 17 wins, a 2.83 ERA and a 1.15 WHIP. The Braves are going to need a similar season from Huddy if they want to make a run at Philadelphia.

Potential Breakouts: Could this be the year that Jordan Schafer finally breaks out and becomes the center fielder the Braves have been looking for? Schafer was incredible during the 2009 Spring Training and he hit a homerun in his debut in the bigs against the Phillies on Opening Day. Schafer suffered a tough set back when he broke a bone in his hand when swinging a bat and it plagued him for two years. But, many people familar with the Braves still believe that the 24-year-old is the real deal. He has speed, power, and the baseball instincts that everyone craves. I think this will be the year that Schafer takes over in centerfield and possibly gives the Braves the leadoff hitter they’ve lacked. The 5th starter in the Braves rotation is Mike Minor’s race to lose in spring training. He showed his potential in a few starts late last season, but he had a few lapses that should be corrected throughout the spring before the start of the season.

The Braves need Chipper Jones to bounce back in 2011

3 Down

Worst Case Scenario: The NL East is the Phillies to lose and it really puts the Braves in position to compete for the Wildcard. Unfortunately, there can only be one wildcard team and with a lot of teams competing for that one final spot, the Braves have little room for error. If the Braves suffer some injuries to key areas again this season like last, then it would be very difficult for them to win the Wildcard. The trade for Dan Uggla was a steal, but losing utility player Omar Infante was tough. He gave Atlanta something not many other teams have and he really stepped up. Now, if someone on the infield goes down, the Braves options will be severely limited.

Biggest Areas of Concern: It’s the corner infield spots that have most Braves fans a little uneasy about the upcoming season. Chipper Jones is determined to recover from the torn ACL he suffered last season and get back to being a productive part of the Braves lineup. Also, the Braves will not have a veteran at first base like Derrek Lee or Troy Glaus this season and they will put the load on the shoulders of rookie Freddie Freeman. Eric Hinske will fill-in when he needs to at first, but big things are expected from Freeman and they can ill-afford for him to flop.

Players Who Must Rebound: The Braves desperately need a healthy and productive Chipper Jones this season. The last two years have been a struggle for Chipper at the dish and just when he was getting things rolling last season, he tore his ACL and was done for the year. If Chipper can rebound, then it will allow the Braves to move Martin Prado to the outfield and give the team much needed help out there. They will also need the 2009 Jair Jurrjens to come back after a woeful injury-plagued year in 2010. He seemed to be well on his way to becoming the ace of the rotation after posting a 2.60 ERA in ‘09, but he regressed back to 4.64 last season. He’ll need to bring his ERA back down to at least the 3’s for the Braves rotation to be as good as they are capable of being.

Be sure to check out our Spring Training Central where we put the “i-ball” on all 30 MLB teams